Imagine innocently scrolling through TikTok and coming across a live show of a woman dancing suggestively. Something seems off about the livestream, so you look through the comments, only to find that many watchers are making weird requests: "Inua mguu kidogo (raise your leg higher)", "Inama kidogo (bend a little more)".
The female host regularly pauses her dancing to read the comments and to remind her watchers to send money to the phone number in her bio in order to receive more explicit clips.
Welcome the world of TikTok after dark. While the platform has a strict ban on content that is considered “adult”, a section of its users, including Kenyans, have found a way to skirt these rules. These videos, sometimes showing simulated sex, are being pushed to people who have not consented to seeing sexual content or, even worse, to underage users.
It’s been happening for a while, and some users have posted about seeing these disturbing videos on their feeds.
“We do not allow nudity, pornography, or sexually explicit content,” says TikTok's community guidelines.
TikTok 'after dark'
However, a cursory look at some of the lives posted after 11pm reveal a set of "after dark" content creators whose activities border on sex work.
For instance, one such Tiktoker is Mary, who goes by the handle @marythebabbyg***.
At face value, her profile, which has more than 6,000 followers, appears to be one of a young woman who posts videos regularly like any other users. However, late at night, she goes live in skimpy outfits while dancing to music suggestively.
In one of her dancing videos, she's wearing a long shirt as she dances in her bedroom. It would appear that her intention is to expose as much of her body as she can within community guidelines to lure in more followers.
“My people on my Instagram, I am now here (TikTok). I want you to follow me so that by tomorrow, we should already be masturbating. Please, please, please follow my new account we get to 1,000 (followers),” she says in a video posted on September 30, 2022.
Speaking to the Nation, Mary admits she creates sexually suggestive content to blow off steam and gain followers quickly.
And while she doesn't specifically mention it, she also uses the platform to solicit money from her followers in exchange for graphic content.
“When people call me, they don’t call out of bad will. They just call to ask if I do prostitution or if I can do it but I don’t do hookups. That is something I will never do. I just make these videos for fun and I tell them that I won’t meet with them," she said, adding that she's unapologetic about the kind of content she posts.
"TikTok allows people to do what they want as long as they don’t violate the community rules. On my lives, I always tell people, if you don’t like me, then keep scrolling. Let them look for the lives of other people that they will like and enjoy them but let them leave mine alone. I live the way I want and do the things that I feel are fine by me,” she says, adding that she's also a food vendor when offline.
On average, her videos get between 15,000 and 98,000 views.
There are several other content creators who found a way to skirt the platform's strict rules, bringing to question how TikTok can moderate videos to ensure its underage users are protected from coming across adult content.
Like some industry observers have previously noted, just because the China-based company says explicit content isn’t allowed, this doesn’t mean it doesn’t show up. It also calls to question how explicit live videos are able to slip through the cracks and appear on users’ feeds without their consent.
Livestreaming is extremely popular on TikTok: it is one of the best ways for users to make money since the platform doesn’t insist on sharing ad revenue with creators, one of the few social media companies that allows that. People make money through cash gifts while other enterprising users share their mobile phone numbers where followers can tip them via mobile money.
And if they're leveraging on sexually explicit content to make cash, all they have to do is ensure that their videos appear under the #usherati tag to build a following. The search term throws up a plethora of results that would make some blush.
The tag #Usherati alone has 2.8 million views and among the videos posted using this hashtag are videos of people discussing sex, behaving inappropriately in public, for instance in swimming pools or nightclubs, or simulating sexual acts.
Moderating livestreams, short videos
In response to the gaps in moderating livestreams and covertly explicit content, last month, TikTok announced that it was stepping up enforcement on sexually suggestive content.
“We want everyone to feel safe and comfortable when they spend time on TikTok… Over the last year, we've been iterating on our machine learning models to improve their consistency and accuracy in detecting sexually explicit, suggestive, or borderline content. Our aim is to quickly identify and remove violative content from our platform and prevent borderline or suggestive content from being recommended to or searchable by teen accounts. We're making progress to reduce the prevalence of borderline or suggestive content recommendations overall, and are now launching the next iteration of our borderline suggestive model which we expect to improve the detection of such content, therefore creating a more appropriate and comfortable experience for teen account holders.”
TikTok also announced it would be giving creators the ability to restrict their videos to adult viewers. Prior to this, the adult-only audience controls feature was only available for TikTok Live users.
“We’ve started to bring our audience controls feature to creators of short-form video and will expand the feature globally.”